December 07, 2011, 2:45 PM — Google's going to change the look of its home page once again. This time, it's dropping the drab efficiency of the "black bar," filled with text links to other Google services and a few interactive tools for its Google+ social network. In its place, anyone signed into Google will soon see a light gray bar, reminiscent of mobile apps and, in some ways, the Apple aesthetic. The Google+ notifications and quick-posting tools are still there, but all the simple text links have been replaced with a Google button--click it, or hover over it for a second, and down drops a menu that can get you to all the other Google services.
It's not ugly, it's not spammy, and, honestly, most of the people I know might give it a cursory "Huh," before moving on to search out, say, the best Peruvian chicken joints in Washington D.C. But that's exactly the thing that frustrates me--Google has found another menu to tuck things behind. The lessons learned by Google's Android team haven't Segway-scootered down the hallway.
The next version of Android, the 4.0 release dubbed "Ice Cream Sandwich," has many improvements to recommend it. The most bold change, the one that will impact hundreds of apps and screenshots and panicked "Where the heck is the 'Refresh' button?" moments, is the removal of the Menu button from the tray of buttons at the bottom of every screen. There is now a Home button that sends you back to your home screen, like the bottom button on an iPhone or iPad, a button that brings up a stack of apps you've recently used to switch between, and a Back button that does a variety of things you can't rely on, but that's another riff for another time.
The Menu button, up until now, has served as the junk drawer of Android apps, where everything that isn't a frequently used function, some semi-regular toggles, and usually the settings for a program get stashed. Like the junk drawer in your office or kitchen, it's often a surprise to see what's stored in there. With some apps, it really is a secondary mish-mash: manual Refresh options, sorting toggles, and Settings/Options buttons. But on Google's own Gmail app, you have to hit Menu to find the Compose option. Creating a new playlist on music service Spotify's Android app requires a Menu tap.